The CIS football season opens nationally this weekend (Ontario schools started their season last weekend), and that's led to the release of the first Football Reporters of Canada-CIS Top 10 poll. (Disclosure: I'm a voter, and you can find my ballot here along with those from other voters affiliated with The CIS Blog.) While there are some notable surprises in the poll, the identity of the team at the top is completely expected, and it's not even unusual that they received every single one of 20 first-place votes. That would be the Laval Rouge et Or, the defending national champions, the #1 team at the start of seven of the last nine seasons and a team that's won three of the last five Vanier Cups and six of the last 10. There are plenty of interesting storylines throughout the CIS ranks, but much like the dominant question down south of if anyone can beat Alabama, the most pivotal question in Canadian university football is if anyone can best Laval. Here's a look at four possible ways for the Rouge et Or to fall.
1. Within their conference: This would be a very against-precedent way for the Rouge et Or to miss lifting the Vanier, as Laval has won every single Dunsmore Cup for the last 10 years, but RSEQ does have other promising teams. The most notable challenger there looks to be former CFL coach and general manager Danny Maciocia's #5 Montreal Carabins, who managed to best the Rouge et Or 23-20 in one regular-season game last year, but lost to the Sherbrooke Vert et Or before they could face Laval in the playoffs. #8 Sherbrooke's also a potential contender here, as they played well last year and have made two of the last four Dunsmore Cup games (the Carabins have been Laval's opponent for the other two). While both teams have some promise, though, the odds are strongly against them besting the Rouge et Or in the playoffs.
2. In the Mitchell Bowl to an AUS team: While this would be a better overall result for Laval, as they'd still be Quebec champions, it might be an even more embarrassing loss. Atlantic University Sport champions haven't exactly been competitive on the national stage recently, with Acadia losing 45-21 and 45-7 to McMaster and Laval respectively in the last two Mitchell Bowls and Saint Mary's losing 35-8 and 38-14 to Calgary the two years before (in the Uteck Bowl and the Mitchell Bowl, respectively), and the results in the annual RSEQ-AUS interlock haven't been much better for Atlantic teams. AUS isn't getting a lot of respect as a conference at the moment, and none of their teams even cracked the initial Top 10. (Acadia did receive 11 points, but #10 Manitoba received 36). They may be better than they've shown, and they will have home-field advantage against the Quebec champion this year, but this still seems like the most inconceivable way for the Rouge et Or to go down.
3. In the Vanier Cup to a Canada West team: This one could happen, as Canada West has some squads with solid potential, including the reigning five-time conference champion Calgary Dinos (ranked #3 overall), the improving Saskatchewan Huskies (#9), the intriguing Manitoba Bisons (#10) and the promising Regina Rams. However, Canada West teams have done even worse than AUS ones in national semifinals over the last two years, with Calgary falling 41-10 to Laval in 2011 and 45-6 to McMaster in 2012. While those results are a reasonably small sample size and may represent just a couple of bad games from the Dinos, they don't exactly speak well for a Canada West team's ability to knock off the Rouge et Or.
4. In the Vanier Cup to an OUA team: This looks like the most likely option, as it's happened relatively recently (McMaster beat Laval 41-38 in double overtime in the spectacular 2011 Vanier Cup) and an Ontario team (Queen's) is the second-ranked squad behind Laval at the moment. OUA also has more teams in the Top 10 than any other conference, with Western (#4), McMaster (#6) and Guelph (#7) filling out the poll. However, the Rouge et Or thumped the Marauders 37-14 in last year's Vanier rematch, and that was a star-filled McMaster team. This may be the most conceivable way a non-Laval team winds up lifting the 2013 Vanier Cup, but it's still highly improbably, especially when you consider that the Rouge et Or will be hosting the split-off Vanier this year because no one else wanted to. With home-field advantage, a typically-stacked team and plenty of up-and-coming young talent, it looks like the 2013 Vanier is again Laval's to lose.